The governors of Georgia and South Carolina met privately Friday in downtown Augusta to talk about ports along the river that divides the two states.
Their spokesmen described the session as beneficial without offering any details.
“The governors met in Augusta to discuss port issues and economic development that will bring jobs to both states,” said Brian Robinson, spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
Deal has been an ardent supporter of deepening the ship channel in the Savannah River to accommodate the larger freighters that will be able to transit the Panama Canal after its expansion is complete in 2014. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has agreed.
Although Deal has enjoyed support from all corners of his state for the project, Haley has met persistent opposition, especially from supporters of the port of Charleston who are hoping for federal funding to deepen its channel. This week, she announced she would veto a bill that the South Carolina Legislature passed unanimously that would withdraw that state’s environmental permit granted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Savannah deepening.
On Friday, the two Republicans in the second year of their first terms, met at 1019 Broad St. and discussed the Savannah dredging and a joint project of the states to develop a new port on the South Carolina side of the river in Jasper County. Progress stopped when Palmetto State officials clamped shut their purse to demand more concessions out of Georgia.
“It was a very productive meeting,” said Haley spokesman Jeff Taillon.
Robinson said: “They agreed to continue meeting and working together on the joint port project at Jasper.”
One purpose of the conference could have been for Deal, a political veteran, to give Haley moral support, speculated Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican who leads the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee.
“I hope Nikki Haley keeps that steel backbone she has because she keeps getting hammered,” he said.
Stephens, who said legislators from both sides of the river have also met privately on occasion, predicted that the bargaining skills Deal honed during 18 years in Congress would result in an agreement of some sort that would benefit both states.
“I have a feeling there’s a lot of things we can agree on. That’s Nathan Deal’s greatest asset,” he said.
What those might be, or the specifics of Friday’s conversation are yet to be made public. The Georgia and South Carolina ports authorities were unusually tight-lipped about it.
Haley’s spokesman offered a terse response when asked why it was so hush-hush.
“The public schedule covers public events, which this wasn’t,” Taillon said when asked why the meeting was not listed on Haley’s public schedule.
South Carolina Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said that he was unaware of the meeting and that most of the Aiken legislators attended a breakfast Friday morning with retired teachers.
Progress on the Jasper terminal broke down altogether in December when South Carolina port officials voted to stop funding the project. Bill Stern, the board chairman of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, said Georgia needed to make some concessions before his state would spend another dime.
South Carolina officials say they fear the Savannah River won’t be deep or wide enough to handle newer, supersize cargo ships even if Georgia meets its goal of dredging the 32-mile shipping channel from 42 feet to 48 feet deep. They want Georgia to commit to seeking a depth of 50 feet and to study whether the river can handle traffic for both the Savannah port and the proposed Jasper terminal.
Stern attended the governors’ meeting Friday along with South Carolina ports CEO Jim Newsome. Both declined to comment on what was said inside, but Stern said his positions had not changed.
“Let’s see if this is a viable port or not, which means 50 feet and two-way traffic,” Stern said. “Let’s be good stewards and stop spending public money until we know we can build something.”
Georgia Ports Authority chief Curtis Foltz and state port board Chairman Alec Poitevent also joined Deal for the meeting. Neither would comment afterward, referring all questions to the governors. In the past, both men have said they’re committed to building the Jasper County port.
Foltz has said he’s certain the Savannah River could accommodate two ports after it’s deepened to 48 feet. The giant cargo ships are already using Savannah’s port, though the river remains too shallow for them to navigate at low tide.
Stern said port officials from both states agreed to a future meeting on the Jasper terminal, though no date has been set. Deal’s spokesman confirmed both sides would meet again.
Associated Press reports were used in this article.